A blend of realism, fantasy and Biblical elements, Tommy Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota is just as its title implies: the placing of the world’s center of Christian pilgrimage—and the childhood home of Jesus—into a run-of-the-mill U.S. state. While happenings of Biblical proportion ought to ensue, this underwhelming attempt at retelling the story of the Messiah falls flat.
Nazareth, North Dakota chronicles several decades in the lives of a group of people living in this fictional town, each of who represent a Biblical figure. There’s Roxy, an alcoholic in her thirties who represents Mary; she takes in a baby named Sam, left on her doorstep at a seedy motel—who, despite his scarce appearance throughout the novel, is supposedly the new Messiah. Roxy meets a kind carpenter, Joe (obviously Mary’s husband Joseph) who she marries. Sam’s cousin Jan (John the Baptist) grows up to be a controversial preacher who foretells the Second Coming. The Mary Magdalene of this menagerie is a high school outcast, Daylene Hooker, who has a crush on Sam.
While the prospect of modernizing Biblical stories certainly has potential, sadly few of these characters evolve beyond their God-given roles. Most of them simply appear, then leave, serving little to no purpose in the story. For example, there’s Severo Rodriguez, the bitter, malevolent sheriff who represents Herod the Great. At first he seems to be shaping up to be a formidable villain, as he abuses his power, bullies his subordinates and vows to track down and apprehend Roxy and her mysterious new child. Disappointingly, the story fast-forwards into the future, when Severo has died and his son, Anton, has taken over the force. While Anton himself is an interesting character, I couldn’t help feeling that Severo’s potential as a villain was wasted.
While Nazareth, North Dakota is split up into chapters, they read more like a set of anticlimactic short stories with little to no sense of unity among them. While it can be understood that the last chapter’s cliffhanger ending is meant to set up for the upcoming sequel, Apostle Islands, that does not explain the various loose threads left untied throughout the whole novel. One gets the feeling it’s more of an episodic showcase of modernized Biblical figures rather than a novel with a plot.
While this novel was not satisfactory, I’m not ruling out reading the sequel, as it could possibly provide the answers that this one lacks. At best, Nazareth, North Dakota is well written and has its moments; just don’t expect any neat wrap-ups.